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May 2022 local elections: hear from Mayor John Biggs

In the run up to the May elections, we interviewed Labour’s John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets

The local elections are fast approaching. On Thursday 5 May, you can head to your local voting station and have your say on who will be Mayor of Tower Hamlets. The last time such elections took place was in 2018.

In the run up to this year’s elections, we spoke to five of the main mayoral candidates to ask them what they would do if elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. 

Q&A with John Biggs

Below, we speak to current Mayor John Biggs of the Labour Party. 

What do you think are people’s main concerns this year and how are you going to address these?

Every year we do a residents survey and every year people’s main concerns jockey between housing and crime and antisocial behaviour, but in recent years people are also concerned about public health and the cost of living. Tower Hamlets is getting quite polarised and there is a growing middle class in the borough with nice houses who are relatively financially secure – although everyone is only as secure as their next paycheck. Then there are lots of people quite hard off on low incomes, in and out of unemployment, and for people like that the cost of energy and food is a real problem. 

At the moment if I had to pinpoint one problem it would be the cost of living, it depends on who you’re talking to though. Housing is a very important issue for a lot of people, and someone with a teenage son might say that crime and antisocial behaviour is their biggest concern, so it’s a mixed bag, but cost of living is the single most important issue affecting everyone at the moment. 

How are you going to address this huge issue of cost of living? 

The council can only do so much. It is largely down to government policy and national economic affairs, but we can be a campaigning force, so one of our jobs is to highlight local problems to the government. The current crisis is a result of year upon year upon year of cuts, benefit changes, economic pressure caused by the pandemic and world affairs at the moment. Lots of people in Tower Hamlets work in industries that support the many thousands of commuters who were coming into London, but now the number of commuters has gone down and people’s security is affected. We need to give people the support, skills and training to get back into the job market. We already have an antipoverty strategy of about two or three million pounds a year that we use to support people who have been through hardship. We also support benefit advice agencies and work with food banks, because food banks shouldn’t be necessary but at the moment they are. So there are various things that we are doing to help people but in the end they need money in their pockets and people need to be able to get to work. 

What will be different this time if you are re-elected as Mayor?

If I succeed it will mean that i have beaten the former mayor (Lutfur Rahman) which i intend to do. His office and reputation has damaged our borough so hopefully we will put an end to that. I’d like to focus a lot more on community cohesion and how we help encourage people to help themselves and support each other and the community. I’d like to spend a lot more time on that and also focus on building new homes to help with the housing waiting list. 

The East End can be a magical place where people traditionally have come with very little and achieved a lot with their lives and we need to try and unlock that by helping with education and supporting people into employment.

What do you think of Lutfur Rahman standing again and the fact that he hasn’t done any interviews or attended any hustings?

I think it’s completely disgraceful. An awful lot of people on the doorsteps are quite shocked that he’s been able to stand again. His five-year ban has come to an end so he’s legally allowed to stand but a lot of people are shocked that he’s never really acknowledged anything was wrong which is outrageous in my view. Clearly he only wants to speak to who he wants to speak to. He seems to be pretty focussed on just his host community, the Bengali community, and in the East End we all need to work together so I think that’s pretty unhealthy. I would be very happy to debate with him but he’s proving to be remarkably shy. I think people deserve a debate in East London. 

Residents tell us that they still haven’t seen much progress when it comes to liveable streets and the issue has raised a lot of passion in our readers. Where do you stand on this and how will you address these concerns?

There’s a real dilemma with liveable streets, it’s a real marmite issue. A lot of people support it but a lot of people are really vigorously opposed to it so what that means is that we need to walk a line between the two. It’s about incremental change and doing things in neighbourhoods where people are happy with it while respecting the rights of other people going about their lives and that’s what people are saying all across London. Every London borough has faced the same backlash about Liveable streets. 

It’s a bit like that saying ​​from Augustine’s Confessions, ‘Make me virtuous but not yet, Make me chaste and celibate, but not yet.’ People recognise the need to change but they don’t really want to do it. There’s always a reason why you need to drive your child to school or why you’re in a hurry or why you need to drive to the shops because it’s cold. And you may recognise in the ideal world you wouldn’t do those things, but getting to a place where a significant number of people are prepared to make those changes is a challenge. It’s a bit like giving up smoking, you always say you’ll do it tomorrow. I’ve taken up smoking during this election – it’s a bit stressful – so I’m going to have to give it up again afterwards.

What we’ve found in the borough, which is still a very working class borough, is that not everyone has been persuaded. One of the challenges of being in politics is that you have to persuade people of things and if people have chosen that they are reluctant to change then we need to work harder trying to persuade people. We need to work on getting consent from people for changes which can improve their quality of life but do involve some sacrifices.

With all the high profile scandals in Westminster people are going to be voting locally for national issues, should Tower Hamlets residents do this?

There’s nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t want to be punished for something that my party had done nationally which had nothing to do with us locally, but most people have busy lives and their vote is a snapshot of what they’re thinking at the time. People get out of bed and think, I don’t like what’s happening so I’m going to make a protest, that’s affected Labour negatively in the past but it may help in this election. I like the idea of local elections being local, and local issues really do affect people’s lives. If you’re really angry about the state of your street you might vote in a particular way to try and sort it out. If you are really pleased with the balancing acts people are doing to keep the borough going in a good direction, bearing in mind all the different interests, then you might vote to keep them in power. 

It’s quite a tough balancing act leading this borough which is such a varied community and so many different interests. I am very aware of the different changes and tensions, but the main thing is that people really like living in the East End of London, obviously there are some people for whom life is pretty miserable so that’s a difficult statement to make, but the East End when it’s good has a real buzz and quality of life to. There aren’t many places like it in the world I don’t think.

Hear from other Mayoral candidates in Tower Hamlets:

Read our interview with Conservative Mayoral Candidate Elliot Weaver.

Read our interview with Trade Unionist and Social Coalition Mayoral Candidate Hugo Pierre.

Read our interview with Liberal Democrat Mayoral Candidate Rabina Khan.

Read our interview with Independant Mayoral Candidate Andrew Wood.

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